In Mike Widmer’s Final Election For Moderator, A Challenger Emerges For The First Time

Photo: Mike Widmer

Mike Widmer will have a challenger – his first ever – in his final campaign to return as Town Moderator.

Filing his paperwork with the Town Clerk’s Office on Feb. 5, former school committee member Michael Crowley will seek to replace one of Belmont’s longest-serving public officials in what Widmer told the Belmontonian will be the last time his name will be on the ballot.

First elected to the one-year term in 2008 when he ran to fill the open seat previously held by Henry Hall, Widmer has been unopposed in 15 subsequent town elections. Before his current post, Widmer has been a member of the Warrant Committee from 1993 until 2008 – three years as chair – and a Town Meeting Member since 1981.

Crowley was a school committee member for four years, eight years on Town Meeting, and six years on the Warrant Committee. He also served on the Long Term Capital Planning Committee, which drafted the recommendation to form the Comprehensive Capital Budget Committee.

Mike Crowley (courtesy photo)

One of the best descriptions of Town Moderator’s functions is by Town Meeting Member Paul Roberts in his “Blogging Belmont” preview of the 2023 town election.

“In addition to presiding over the annual Town Meeting, the Moderator plays a critical role in setting the agenda for Town Meeting – working with the Town’s various committees and professional staff, residents and Town counsel to set the warrant.”

“In Belmont, the Moderator also has substantial appointment powers. They appoint all members of the Warrant Committee – the Town’s main financial oversight committee – as well as three members of the seven person Capital Budget Committee, a majority of the Bylaw Review Committee and members of the Permanent Building Advisory Committee. The Moderator is also tasked with appointing members to special purpose committees, such as [building committees].”

Once Again, (Special) Town Meeting Will Be A Virtual Affair

Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator

While many of the town’s board and committee meetings have returned to in person, the most significant of those will, once again, be held virtually after Belmont Select Board approved a recommendation by Town Moderator Mike Widmer to hold the upcoming Special Town Meeting virtually over the internet.

The three-day meeting is scheduled for Nov. 29, 30 and Dec. 1.

The reason Widmer said for the continuation of meeting “on-line” was two fold, first pointing to rising numbers of Covid-19 infections returning as the weather turns colder.

According to the website Your Local Epidemiologist, the start of a new Covid wave in Western Europe has begun as hospitalizations are uniformly increasing. “As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, not only are infections increasing, but so is severe disease,” said the website.

Given the U.S. has mirrored European trends throughout the pandemic, a wave in the U.S. is likely coming. And specifically in Boston, “there are concerning signals with sudden increases in viral wastewater levels.”

With the likely return of virial infections, a large indoor setting with 300 people would prove challenging. Town Meeting would take place for four hours over three days either in the new High School auditorium or at the Chenery Middle School, said Widmer. And while a majority of Town Meeting would be comfortable in this setting, “clearly a fraction of Town Meeting members, particularly those who are seniors and immunocompromised would have some risk,” said Widmer.

And while that population would have a choice to attend a movie or eat at a restaurant, “it’s not fair to tell them to choose to not to meet their civic obligation and not attend Town Meeting.”

“I think the prudent thing to do is to continue to meet virtually. We have been successful with the Town Clerk [Ellen Cushman] in doing this well and professionally and with civil debates,” said Widmer.

Despite Decline In Covid, First Segment Of Belmont Town Meeting Will Be Virtual

Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator

While many people are hailing a return to normalcy after two years of Covid-19 restrictions, one of Belmont’s annual traditions will for the third time be presented virtually due to health concerns.

“I am recommending to the Select Board that our upcoming Annual Town Meeting be held remotely,” said Belmont Town Moderator Mike Widmer in a memo emailed to Town Meeting members by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman on Friday, May 18.

Widmer said he will bring his recommendation before the board at its Monday, March 21 meeting.

Widmer noted the decision will only effect Segment A – the non-budget agenda on the warrant – that begins May 2. He did strike a hopeful note saying Town Meeting could meet in person in June for the the fiscal portion “if [Covid] cases continue to decline significantly.”

The long-time moderator said the decision was made “reluctantly” after meeting with town officials, health experts and moderators from other towns.

“Personally, I would much prefer to meet in person. While we have successfully conducted the Town’s business using remote access, we have missed the personal and social connections of meeting in person. The debates, the camaraderie, the faces, the laughter, the applause, even the groans are all part of our local democracy, and are largely missing in virtual meetings,” said Widmer.

But after consultation with Belmont’s public health officials, Widmer did not believe it is safe for 300-plus individuals to meet in a confined space for four or more hours over several sessions. While many members would be willing to take the risk, there are those who themselves or family members continue to be susceptible to the virus and its potentially deadly effect.

While some towns’ legislative bodies, such as Needham, Reading and Winchester, will meet in person in the spring, Belmont has two distinct disadvantages to do the same. First, Belmont’s 294 Town Meeting Member body is larger than all but a few towns, and, second, its available indoor spaces have more impediments than most other municipalities.

For example, if a recommendation by heath officials is followed to leave an empty seat and row between participants, only 178 people could meet in the Chenery auditorium and 215 in the new High School theater. And an attempt to convene in the Wenner Field House would be quite costly as the athletic floor will need to be covered and audio/visual equipment installed.

“Many of you will be pleased with this decision, many not. I do hope you will understand that it was made in good faith after many conversations and much reflection. I hope you will bring that same good will to Town Meeting where we will be discussing important and likely contentious issues,” said Widmer.